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WHO Stresses Health Impact at Copenhagen Climate Event


The World Health Organization (WHO) wants to make sure scientists recognize that climate change has an impact on health as well as the environment. That was the thrust of the “side event” WHO hosted for public health officials in Copenhagen at the climate change conference.

The impact on public health can be widespread and catastrophic, according to WHO officials. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a scientist in WHO’s Public Health and Environment department, told CNN that climate change is “actually about people’s survival.” The effects are already underway and will probably escalate in the future.

Serious health issues “are all climate-sensitive,” says Dr. Maria Neira, WHO director of Public Health and Environment. She told CNN that global warming will likely increase the magnitude of the major health issues already upon us, including malnutrition, which kills 3.5 million people annually, diarrheal diseases, which claim 2 million people, and malaria, which is responsible for nearly 1 million deaths per year.

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Health concerns are associated with both extremes of climate change—drought and flooding. As temperatures rise and flooding occurs, diseases that are spread by mosquitoes, including dengue fever and malaria, may also increase. Flooding could dramatically increase the number of cases of cholera and other diarrheal diseases.

Drought could significantly increase the already overwhelming number of people affected by malnutrition. Campbell-Lendrum told CNN that “There is some early evidence that climate change is affecting the frequency and intensity of drought.” It appears that the global warming will have an impact on agricultural production in the areas already hardest hit by malnutrition.

Earlier this year, an international commission published a series of four studies on household energy, transportation, electricity, and agriculture, showing that significant improvements in health are possible if the right strategies are chosen for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers found that implementing practices such as more walking and cycling in urban areas, the use of low-emissions stoves in India, increasing the use of wind turbines, and reducing consumption of saturated fats from animals would all result in improvements to both health and the environment.

Unfortunately, the Copenhagen conference closed with a nonbinding accord that limited temperature increases but failed to set emission targets. The Guardian reported on Saturday that negotiators will now work on individual agreements that involve technology, forests, and finance, but a lack of strong leadership likely means these efforts will take years to complete. While our leaders procrastinate, climate change marches on, and so does the health impact on millions of people around the globe.

CNN, Dec. 18, 2009
Guardian Dec. 19, 2009
NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences